Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Soul quenching

It's burn season in the Ozark Highlands, the time of year when relative humidities, fuel moistures, and wind directions dictate the day's events. Fire shaped Missouri's landscape, which was once largely dominated by expanses of open woodlands with rich, grassy understories. To maintain what's left of this presettlement landscape, agencies and private landowners alike mark their calendars on February 1 each year, ushering in burn season. It lasts until about April 7, just when the sedges start greening up. I spent almost every day this week working a fire. One with 50 foot flames. Another with raging headfires. Yet another that gently creeped up slopes. Working prescribed fires beats any day in the office.

I love burn season almost as much as I appreciate cool, fall nights and spring sunrises on a prairie. I love the way woodsmoke smells in my hair, the way fire takes out three, four, six years worth of seral woodlands, thereby allowing the understory to revert to its transcendent, presettlement state. I love the way fire creeps up hollows, creating convection, producing big, fast flames that can sound like a tornado. I love the results of a good, hot, spring fire: Phlox divaricata shows up first, along with mayapples and morels. Bright blue flowers poking up from the charred remains of oak and hickory leaf litter. I love seeing stunted post oak sprouts being consumed by fire. The hiss and crackle of inland sea oats as they disintegrate is truly musical. When burning season arrives, I'm seldom inside, and seldom in clothes that don't reek of diesel fuel.

I like controlling fire. I like seeing the way it works around corners, up hills and slopes, into little crannies. Fire can create its own weather patterns, change wind direction, and it can be very predictable, under the right prescription. Many esteemed ecologists have devoted their lives to understanding fire behavior. Fire behavior is truly fascinating, and I love watching it work. So, it's really no surprise when I show up at a prescribed burn asking for the torch. I like to have some form of control over the fire, to either drag it, flaming, into the unit or to start it altogether. Oddly enough, no one ever argues against me when I ask for the torch. Others prefer to carry rakes or backpack blowers, but I like the torch. I like dripping fire into flashy grass fuels, listening to the dessicated stems pop. I like burning out draws, where you have to take into account radiating heat and convection before you drip flames everywhere.

Above all, I love seeing the effects of fire. I've been burning woods all week. Today we walked the firelines after a 572 acre burn. We realized we had burned almost 95% of the area: the wetter, more mesic areas received only splotchy fire, despite my liberal application. (Of course, traditionally, these areas didn't burn very resolutely to begin with.) The fire cleared several hundred acres of glades of their sumacs, stunted post oaks and sassafras saplings. Rock outcroppings glisten in the sunlight after a fire, having been covered by leaf litter for several consecutive years. After a fire, every inch of topographic relief reveals itself.

The satisfaction of fire's effects is indescribable. My dear friend Paul, singlehandedly responsible for the prescribed fire program in Missouri, waxes eloquently about it when I mention that I am setting out to burn one of his first units. If anyone thinks I love fire, know that Paul loves it more:

There is no greater human orchestrated use of nature's power on the Earth, primordial and ingrained in the spirit and soul...that smell of smoke in your hair...You have captured the burning bug: it makes you restless at night; keeps you daydreaming, it's an elixir that charges your mind's senses and sends thoughts wandering, of life, of great outdoor experiences. Here's hoping the winds, humidity, temperature and air stability are just the right mix for the "its a go" decision. As you splash fire's paint across the land, know that I've walked and stripped fire across those hills many a time; I've laid down in the thick bluestem grass of Lodge Glade, closing my eyes and listening to the red buffalo roar...

Seeing that blackened landscape, derived from the fires of four driptorches, mine included, makes me joyful. I never imagined those small drops of lit fuel I scattered into the leaf litter would clear an entire hillside of its 4 years of accumulated leaf litter. I know fire loves to climb up slopes, but this fire followed a textbook.
Above everything else, I love knowing that with a flick of a strong wrist, with a little diesel and fire, one person can alter a landscape, can bring back a disturbance regime that dictated woodland composition. The process of restoring those disturbance regimes is a soul satisfying, incredible experience that I cherish every time I'm given a torch.


Anonymous said...

Do you "shoo" away any of the wildlife before a burn? Or post a notice for them (so they'll know when to evacuate)?

Allison Vaughn said...

That's charming. Fire under prescription is a slow process, slow enough even for three toed box turtles to hunker down (however, in the Ozark Highlands, you can often see box turtles with fire scars on their shells). Considering that the landscape was shaped by fire, animals are evolutionarily accustomed to it. That being said, when we do particularly late spring burns, I always comb the landscape looking for mortality. In the hottest fire we've ever prescribed, down on Crowley's Ridge, I found one single dead millipede. I felt bad about it, but recognize that if we *didn't* burn, the landscape would be so greatly changed as to not even support them anymore.